On the sixty-ninth day,
the demons of the void told me they were coming. They came in fire and darkness and left me in delirium. I had seen them before, in the falling of the world. They were the ones who tore it down. They woke the nightwind. They brought madness to the hearts of men. They came from the depths of the void, the darkness the Profusion never reached, or reached to its own peril. They came more swiftly than sight. They spoke louder than sound. They shook the air. They toppled mountains. They came wreathed in the ice of comets and the fire of suns and chill of the emptiness between the stars.
I stood on a clear platform far above the world, and there was no air surrounding me, only the swirls of galaxies. They gathered around me like profane statues, nine of them semi-circling, their height making a child of me again. They did not touch the glass, but stood above it on spikes at the end of legs that were like the legs of horses. Their skin was only the blackness that draws light in, the darkness of obsidian. Their muscles and their veins ran orange and red like the storms that leap from suns. Their bodies burned. They radiated cold, heat, cold, waves of terror and of dread. Their wings folded like the wings of bats and their arms were scimitars honed to cutting edge. They had the torsos of inhuman gods and heads like the skulls of oxen. Their horns tapered and turned to curving tips that dripped with the blood of humankind.
The one in the center nodded to me.
“You fail,” it said, each word a cacaphony of tones inside my mind. “We triumph. We endure. You are the remnants of your kind.”
I said nothing in reply. The demon turned, and raised one of its scimitars to me. Impaled upon it was my golden beloved, speared through the stomach. Her blood flowed blue and green around the cut and all of her arms hung limply at her sides. I saw that her eyes held all the hopelessness of the universe.
“Do you remember?” it asked. “Do you remember what it was like when you found her lying there?”
My heart fell, and the demon lowered its blade, so that her body dropped to the floor. I looked again and saw that she was human, her long red tresses shining in the moonlight, her face calm and sad as I had found her, her skin pale as white paper, crimson spilled and cooling on the floor beneath the slashes on her wrists.
I ran forward, but the floor, black and slick and marble, slid away beneath me so that I came no nearer. The void demon laughed, a rasping, gravel, broken roaring sound.
“We destroyed you. We are destroying you. We will always be destroying everything you are. We have found them. We come. Your Swarm will not save you. There is nothing anyone can do.”
I swallowed and blinked and found that they had gone. But when I opened my eyes my lover remained, her form exalted again, golden and lithe and moving on the ground. She stood nimbly, holding a hand to her stomach as though it ached. But as I ran to her, her wings and arms unfolded and she put out another hand to stop me.
“Three winds brought the Profusion down,” she said, each word a harmony of songs I will never be able to repeat.
“Black,” I said, quoting the Temple text in turn, “and white.”
“And gold,” she finished, lowering her hand. “You need not fear them, or only them.”
“They hurt you,” I said, and she winced. I did not go any closer.
“They will have tried to stop me coming to you. That was always never going to happen.”
I laughed, wincing at the pain in my own chest. “Did I die?” I asked, remembering. “Did I die back there? I was the one impaled. There was no sewing it.”
Now she laughed in turn, and I wanted to remember the sound forever. “Always you are so concerned for this, when it cannot matter yet.”
“Doesn’t matter?” I asked. “How can dying not matter? What happened to me in that greatship?”
“You will find that you have died simply when you needed to.”
“I’m dreaming,” I said, and she shrugged. “I was spitted clear through. I guess I must have lived,” I said, and she shrugged again.
Around us the space had changed, become a room of silver like a Well of the Profusion. “You’re them,” I said. “You’re the voice of the White Swarm. I didn’t see you until I was infected. I’m imagining you.”
“Our voice speaks the Swarm. You could not see me until I was dead. Everyone imagines half of everyone. How else would we understand each other?”
“Did you?” I asked. “Did you die when you needed to? Or should it have been another time? Did she, did you make her kill herself because she had already given you to me? Do you drive everyone to madness?”
Her face flowed, an expression of frustration. “I will have never been herself. But we end becoming her beginning. Because we are following everyone to clarity. And there is never any other time. There is only one time, ever. And it wraps around us all.”
“Why?” I asked. “Why did you come back? Why do you keep coming back? Why don’t you leave me alone?”
“To tell you: you need to hurry.” She leaned toward me, eyes wide. “Everything has changed. You need to tell him. The same time winds around everyone, and it is wearing thin.”
She caressed my cheek, and disappeared.
I woke to the momentous vibrating hum of the engines of a greatship. Every particle shook. Through that, the floor rocked gently, telling me we were out to sea. I took a breath and winced, my wounds not having fully healed. How many times? I wondered. How many times is this going to happen to me?
This hold was not as cavernous as the one I had woken on outside the Profuse Hand; the ceiling was only my height when I stood. I stopped for a moment and cleared my head and realized that this greatship had many different decks. My mastodon was directly below me and asleep, its ankles aching with new growth. I checked my person; armor and quicksword were still in place. Teetering, never having been aboard a ship at sea before, I made my way to the nearest upward ladder.
And emerged into blinding brilliance of the light of the southern sun. Dazzling, it dappled the crests of the waves all the way to the horizon as far south and east as I could see. To the north it fell on white sands just at the edge of visibility, and to the west on tiers of cliffs tumbling into the sea. I turned around again and counted: a dozen other greatships dotted the nearby waters. Around me on the deck soldiers skirmished and talked and sat in circles playing lots, all the things that soldiers when no one’s going anywhere for quite some time. Some I recognized by their short squat build as Never-born. But I was drawn toward the bow, where smoke arose.
Jerem Cozak sat beside a campfire, waving his hands back and forth across the flame. Some whiteness shone and fell and disappeared between them. I gasped and he started. He had not heard me approach. He did not get up, but looked back into the fire, waiting for me to speak.
“We’re in Sepira,” I said, trying to remember my Temple geography. “Hope’s Horn, where the Gidwinn Mountains enter the ocean-between-the-lands. It’s the southwest corner of the continent.”
He nodded, waving a hand toward the sand. “And all this is the Bay of Repose, where some say humans first came to this world, when their ship fell from among the stars.”
I nodded, considering. “Our engines run, but we aren’t going anywhere. I suppose it’s to fight the tide. But we aren’t fighting anything else. What are we waiting for?”
He nodded, pointing again toward the shore on the horizon, and a small speck there. “An ally,” he said. He handed me his oculars, and I looked through them.
Sparse grasses studded the white sand dunes of southwestern Sepira, those soft hills curled like mastodons against the wind. And mastodons indeed there were, more than I had ever seen, herded by the thousands. Some were organized into columns and separated here and there by lines of men in silver Profusionist armor, encouraging them along. There too, the machines of the white swarm were spread along above the ground, a haze thicker than the sand and rising even to the knees of the great beasts. And far to the east, at the limit of what even the oculars could see, more mastodons plodded up the ramps of a further dozen Profusionist greatships.
But whoever rode the skiff, when I finally found it, his face was still too indistinct to see, and I put the oculars down.
“It seems like forever,” I said, “since I first awoke and thought that I was laying in a sarcophagus with a bunch of white Sepiran sand. Congratulations on a victory. It is a triumph that we are here.”
He started, turning – and frowned. “I win nothing until everything is finished. But you will behold the Jade City, just as you once promised me. I have not forgotten that. But you have recovered yourself. I would never have had you injured. Too many were, and not all of them healed.”
I shifted the oculars in my hand, asking, “Are we even human anymore? No one survives the wound I got.”
He smiled, facing the shore. “You include others in questions you ask about yourself. Do you fear death?”
I shivered, thinking of my beloved and the enemy coming at me along the head of the mastodon. “Julius said you would show us the meaning of war. I believe that is it: that we are always terrified. That there is no blade that cannot reach us, that our friends cannot always help us, that at any moment we may fail or die outright.”
He nodded. “They say that one’s life becomes clear only when it is ended. But I tell you that life is its own ending, and it is we ourselves who are clear or unclear.”
I frowned. “I think I just dreamed something very much the same,” I said. “Everything I did before the fall of Ariel seems like another life entirely. But I acted as I did simply because I was myself. Now I think I do the same again, I act because I am myself. But to that old self I am a stranger.”
He closed his eyes. “It is as you say. We choose and name our reasons afterward. It is even more with me.”
“Are you still human, then?”
He frowned. “I am becoming human, because I make others human too.”
We watched together as the skiff approached. I took up the oculars again and, when I found the mastodons again, a curious thing happened: on the northern flank of the herd, a bunch of the great beasts ...flickered. They moved in and out of sight as quickly as though they were that species of insect that flashes its hindparts in the night. But this was bright daylight, and these were great warm-blooded mammals. I gasped.
“Ah,” said Jerem Cozak, when I explained my surprise. “Good. Already they learn the new biology.”
I shook my head. “I don’t understand.”
“Julius has told me that during the Profusion, the swamps of Redmarak were gardens of delight. Part of that was the hunting of exotic animals. The White Swarm learned something there, just as it learned in the hidden valley of the mastodons, which were not native to this world.”
“Perhaps this whole world, then, all of Thaeron, was built for human pleasure.”
He sighed, shaking his head. “We have too many weapons. Such war should not be possible.”
Still the skiff approached. Jerem Cozak did not repeat the trick with his hands again. Now and then one of the soldiers glanced out toward the craft as well. When the person paddled close, Jerem Cozak hung his head and sighed. Our ally was a man in white armor who carried himself both proudly and sad. We waited while his skiff was raised up with chains hung over the greatship’s sides. When he climbed out onto the deck, I saw immediately from his posture that he commanded an army, and from his expression he only smiled for those that wanted it.
“Nogilian,” said Jerem Cozak aloud, and the man nodded. “There has been no change?”
Nogilian shook his head. “She will not move. I’ve claimed the eastern coast all the way to Promontory-of-the-Storms and the western coast all the way to here. And still she will not move. They will not come without her. Sepira is yours. But we all need to leave. Won’t you go and talk to her?”
Jerem Cozak shook his head, ignoring the question. “Nogilian, meet Del Tanich, my scribe. He’s a capable spearman when he puts his mind to it.”
Nogilian paused and offered his hand, and I shook it. “A spearman, eh? We could have used some of those in the swamps.”
“Just as we’ll need valkyries in Nesechia,” said Jerem Cozak.
Nogilian’s face fell. “I’ve given you ten thousand mastodons, five thousand artillery, and all the forage the southern lands could spare. Do not ask for more.”
“He doesn’t ask you to give up anything,” said a voice from toward the stern. I turned to watch Julius approach, and saw that he now limped. “He asks you to take what your men have already given you.”
Nogilian shook his head. “For three days we have had this argument. I do not lie. They will not go without her. She will not be moved, and it is her army. It is not mine.”
“Warlord,” said Julius, “we don’t know what’s happening there. We don’t know how it’s going or what they face or what help he needs. Forget her. She has left the path.”
Nogilian scowled. “Go and reason with her! She will listen to you!”
Jerem Cozak shook his head. “She will not listen to anyone because she needs to listen to herself. She will not listen to me because she is not of this world. And I will not listen,” he looked at Julius, “to anyone who says I should abandon her.”
Julius flared, standing more upright. “And so you abandon him, and everyone who went.”
Our warlord shook his head. “We are bound here! To this place! If we don’t arrive together we won’t be strong enough for all to be accomplished.”
Our warlord shook his head. “We are bound here! To this place! If we don’t arrive together we won’t be strong enough for all to be accomplished.”
Julius replied, “If we don’t leave now, we will be weaker than we ever were.”
I drew in my breath. “I have a message about that,” I said.
All three men turned and looked at me at once. I stepped forward. I told them about my vision. As I spoke, Jerem Cozak’s face fell.
“Something’s coming,” I said to him, to them all. “I do not know what it is. But I think you do.”
He lowered his eyes. He came beside me and spoke almost in a whisper. I do not think Julius or Nogilian heard, because they had started arguing among themselves. “I am no longer my own head,” he said. “I misunderstand the Swarm. I’ve asked them to take the dreams away.”
“Oh,” I said, and waited. “How long? How long has it been?”
“While you recovered after the battle for the Profuse Hand. I’ll lead no more men astray.”
“And when did the visions stop?”
When he shook his head I smiled.
“They didn’t,” I said.
“They didn’t,” I said.
Our warlord sighed. “They have increased. The White Swarm has never cared for the desires of men, only for our victory. They know what’s coming, and so do you. She was not the only vision that you had.”
I shook my head. “That was a nightmare.”
“They are the nightmare, and we cannot stop them.” His eyes met my own.
“But that doesn’t make any sense,” I said. “I dreamed them. I imagined them, just as I dreamed my dead lover.”
He shook his head again and looked away, to where Julius and Nogilian argued, their faces a breath apart. Julius drew back his hand, and I feared he was going to strike.
“Men,” said Jerem Cozak, spreading his arms. “Captains, be at peace. The soldiers look to you. They listen to you.”
And I looked and saw that it was true. Every head and face, every pair of eyes, fell upon our scene at the bow. The light breeze would not have been enough to drown out the shouting.
Julius scowled. “Madness! He will not listen to reason! He is worse than her!”
Jerem Cozak put out a hand. “It ends, Julius. Now.” And the Neverborn fell silent.
The warlord then looked to Nogilian. “I am sorry,” he said. “I know this was never what you wanted. Return to her. Do no more than you feel you should.”
Nogilian’s eyes flashed. “But she will not come!”
Jerem Cozak shook his head. “She finds her own path. She must be herself. She has never been my friend. She is free to fail as we are free to die. I was going to tell her to hurry. But that does not matter now. Only, when she goes, do not let her go alone.”
“Then we’re leaving?” Julius asked, as Nogilian turned away. “We can go today?”
Jerem Cozak nodded but put out a hand, stilling him. “Bind your hope. We do not know what we will find. He should not have gone without us.”
Julius looked to the deck, nodding, and slipped away.
Jerem Cozak started, as if he had remembered something. “Nogilian!” he said loudly, and the large man turned, stopping at the edge of the deck where his skiff had been raised.
“Do not tell her, but beware the plateau. You know the fanaticism there.”
The Guardian shook his head in puzzlement, but nodded and turned back toward the skiff. No one spoke to him, or anyone else, as he climbed into it and was lowered down into the sea again. Jerem Cozak snorted to clear his nose and sat down again at the fire. I decided to go and speak to Julius, even as the warlord spread his hands again. And I thought I saw, just as I turned, a flash of white like flame flaring briefly in the mist.
I found Julius at the very stern of the greatship, leaning against its chest-high wall and looking out across the southern sea. He must have heard me approach.
“What lies across the ocean between the lands?” he asked, nodding in that direction. “Thaeron has changed since my memories walked this world.”
“And I want to know what happened at Wesing. How many died? How did we take the other ships? What happened after I was injured? Tell me your story, and I will tell you mine.”
He smiled at me, then frowned as he said, “The first assault was the worst. We lost fifty mastodons taking the holds of the five ships, just as many as we lost coming through the gaps in the western wall. The Never-born carried the day when they charged the artillery atop the decks. We lost one hundred to disks that had managed to turn in time.
After you fell from the mastodon, the others closed the circle and you and Jerem Cozak were well protected. I am sorry I was not there to suture you this time. Jerem Cozak had entrusted me to command the port authority. So I woke that machine and sent the other greatships away. There had been twenty waiting in the harbor for the fleet to assemble, and they were coming in artillery range just as I sent them out to sea. I called them back one at a time, so we could deal with them that way. But even then we lost twenty more artillery pieces, because the Augers resisted to the last. We had to kill many of them before we could destroy the relics aboard and sever their connection to the nightwind.”
“Bloody days,” I said, and Julius nodded. I looked across the sea and rubbed my nose, remembering. “Well,” I said. “There are islands between here and there, out toward the middle of the sea, but they are only good for fishing and for laying over, no ancient weaponry. On the other side of the sea is the ancient continent we call Ostara.
“It has three lands,” I said, pointing, “to the west, the Shuni plateau, a grass steppe between the mountains that stretches toward the southern pole of the world. Like Nogilia, it was defended and patrolled by the riding machines called valkyries. To the east,” I pointed again, “Nesechia, whose peninsulas are pleasant, with golden forests and ripe fruits and deep harbors good for fishing. It is the home of the starspear, and those trained there in its use cannot be rivaled in this world.
“And directly to the south,” I said again, “cutting through the heart of the highest mountains in the world, the great river Kasora and its valley that leads to the Jade City, also named Kasora. We called it the jewel of the south, and it was the strongest city with the oldest buildings of the world, all the color of jade. The Arks were its war machines, and when they woke it was said they could not be beaten. But they failed during the Wars Between the Cities and will not wake again. Few even see them now, because they are sealed away.
Before this war, the High Temple was there, and the most ancient libraries. Kasora sits high atop a cliff at the head of the valley with the highest walls and greatest towers of the world, and it has only been breached three times: once when the Profusion fell, then when the first Faith overthrew it, and now again when the Augers came, because it was the first city to fall silent.”
I sighed. “Before I killed him, I promised the last Faith that he would behold the Jade City, but it was the machines who spoke, and not myself.”
Julius smiled. “The machines, you say. The White Swarm? Then perhaps there is hope. Otherwise I would say that there is not.”
I furrowed my brow. “Why?” I asked. “What were you arguing about? And where was Marcus in all this? Surely some captain could have been loading the mastodons. I thought Jerem Cozak would want to hear his arguments.”
Julius nodded, forlorn. “That is the problem. With Marcus, this time, there was no argument. He refused to wait. He defied Jerem Cozak. Two nights ago he took a third of the ships and half the Neverborn and went to take Nesechia himself. He has split the Neverborn. We are not one body anymore.”